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world geography

So, I had been thinking lately that there were a lot of countries in the world that I'd never even heard of, and many more that I'd heard of but had only a vague idea of where they are, who their neighbors(*) are, or what they are shaped like. Like most Americans, if I were asked to label countries on a blank map of Eastern Europe, I would have only known Poland, Greece, and Russia for sure, and been able to guess a few more.

So two days ago, I decided to fix that. I thought it was a project that would take months, but as it turns out, I now basically know all the countries in the world, and where they are, aside from various tiny Islands, like those in Oceana and the Carribean. On Wednesday, I started with South America because I figured I already knew at least half of those. I was surprised to realize that within about 10-15 minutes, I could point to a blank map and name all of them. So then I added Central America, which was even easier because there are only 7 countries, and all of them I had at least heard of. (Not so with South America, I had never heard of Suriname.). Wow, that's basically all of the Western Hemisphere, aside from the islands... not a bad start!

Encouraged by this, I moved on to Europe. To my surprise, I had them all down within an hour or so. After that, I moved to Asia. Asia was the hardest for me that day, since I've never been there and it's so far from anything in my life, but after another hour or two I had all of the countries in Asia memorized. I went back to try the Europe map again just to make sure I hadn't forgotten it.

So in one day, I went from hardly knowing where half of these countries are, to knowing pretty much the whole world except Africa. I suppose at some point I did memorize most of them in grade school, although geography was always my worst subject and the only class I ever got a D in growing up. I think at that time, it seemed so pointless, memorizing random manmade borders in places I had never been or even heard about. Whatever of them I had memorized for the test, surely faded quickly afterwards. And many boundaries have changed now, especially due to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Now it seems far more interesting, because I hear about lots of these places in the news and have various cultural associations with most of the names, and have met people from some of the places.

Yesterday, I went and tackled most of Africa. Africa was way harder than anything else, even Asia. And it had the highest concentration of countries I'd never heard of. So I memorized most of it yesterday, but left the Western part till today, since it is filled with tiny countries that were completely unfamiliar to me. Countries like The Gambia, Cote d'lvoire, Burkina Faso, Togo, and Benin. (I think The Gambia may be the only country other than The Bahamas that starts with "The"... actually maybe The Virgin Islands, if you're supposed to put a The in front of it. [Update: ah, The Netherlands, how could I forget them? maybe the Gambia is the only non-plural one though.]) I had also never heard of Lesotho or Berundi. Some like Gabon and Senegal rang some sort of very vague bell, although not enough that I would have been sure they were countries. At any rate, after a bit more time today, I've pretty much got Africa down. I don't know how long all of this is going to last in my memory though, so I should probably do a refresh in a couple weeks.

At any rate, I'd highly recommend trying this exercise, if you haven't already--it should only take a few hours to get most of the world down. I will feel much more confident listening to the news about what's going on in places like Rwanda now that I actually know where they are :)

Among European countries, I think the only two I had never heard of were San Moreno and Andorra. Although after reading up on Andorra it actually does sound familiar now.

While going through, I noticed all sorts of surprising things that made me stop and think. For example, Kazakhstan is completely unbelievably gigantic... for some reason I pictured it as a tiny obscure country, but no... not at all. It's the 9th largest country in the world in terms of land area. For comparison, Greenland is 13th and Mexico is 15th. If someone had asked me "which is bigger, Mexico or Kazakhstan" I would have said "obviously Mexico". Nope! Iran and Sudan are also bigger than I thought, and Saudi Arabia is a bit smaller. Would you believe Sudan is also bigger than Greenland and Mexico?! Also surprising is the size of Madagascar--I had pictured it as this little insignificant island, but actually it's bigger than Spain! (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_area for the whole list.)

The most interesting and confusing border region I found is the boundary of India near where it, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh come together. There's a thin strip of land only about 20-miles wide near a town called Karkarbhitta that looks kind of like a winding river, that goes through near where these other countries almost intersect with each other. This strip of land is part of India, and connects two much bulkier regions of India that would otherwise be completely separated.

(*) I just noticed that Firefox's spellchecker doesn't know the word "neighbor" or "neighbors", how bizarre. This is not an uncommon word at all! I have noticed other fairly common words that it thinks are not words, but this one is ridiculous!



( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 6th, 2009 09:49 pm (UTC)
I love this! Great idea.
Nov. 6th, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC)
What did you use for blank maps?
Nov. 6th, 2009 11:18 pm (UTC)
Wikipedia has a blank map of each continent if you go to the page for that continent... for example:


Note that the Africa map is missing Eritrea... they established their independence from Ethiopia officially in 1993.

Some of the continent maps are hard to see the smaller countries on, though, particularly Europe. For those, it's easier to just go to a page of an individual country and it will have an entire blank surrounding region, like this one for Kosovo which is a good map to use for Europe:


Kosovo is another example of out-of-dateness I found somewhere... initially when I was learning the European countries, I was using a map that didn't have it on there; if you want to make sure you've got the most up-to-date, check googlemaps, although they don't label the countries as well as some maps (it's easier if they are colored differently and the cities aren't labeled).
Nov. 6th, 2009 11:55 pm (UTC)
Note that the Africa map is missing Eritrea...

Ouch, on behalf of my kid sister's Eritrean best friend. =)

Thank you for the links!
Nov. 7th, 2009 02:59 am (UTC)
I'm doing them from here:


Search on "countries" and you get some good quizzes!
Nov. 7th, 2009 05:50 am (UTC)
Neat, thanks for the link!
Nov. 6th, 2009 11:43 pm (UTC)
Actually, here's a really map... it's got all of the countries of the world color coded by Human Development Index, so while you're identifying them you can remember which ones are truly "3rd world" versus more developed ones:


(although this one has Eritrea but not Kosovo)

color codes here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_development_index

It also has lines connecting different pieces of the same country, for example the bit of Russia bordering Lithuania that is cut off from the rest of the mother country.

Edited at 2009-11-06 11:44 pm (UTC)
Nov. 6th, 2009 11:54 pm (UTC)
Try - neighbours. ;)
Nov. 7th, 2009 05:53 am (UTC)
Oh, right. Now that I think of it, I do vaguely remember getting frustrated by the same thing before, when it thought I mispelled "color" or something else with the o/ou different spellings for different English speaking countries. I need to find a US version of Firefox, I wonder if that exists.
Nov. 7th, 2009 05:55 am (UTC)
Actually, it looks like my version is US... they just only have the British spellings in the dictionary for some reason:

Mozilla/5.0 (X11; U; Linux i686; en-US; rv:1.9b5) Gecko/2008043010 Fedora/3.0-0.60.beta5.fc9 Firefox/3.0b5
Nov. 7th, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
Ooh ooh, quick quiz:
Now that you're a geo whiz (more than me, at least), can you name all of the two doubly-landlocked countries in the world (hint: there's only two)?

[doubly landlocked countries are countries which are landlocked *and* only border on landlocked countries]
Nov. 7th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Ooh ooh, quick quiz:
very interesting question! I assume I'm not allowed to look at a map, otherwise it would be fairly trivial to find.

So without cheating, let's see...

I know there's none in the Middle East, North, South or Central America. I don't think there are any in Africa, but I'm not sure. Eastern Europe and Western Asia definitely seems like the place where the best candidates would be.

My first guess would be Moldova. I think it borders Ukraine and Romania, and possibly Serbia. Ukraine and Serbia I'm pretty damn sure are landlocked, while Romania I'm not quite sure but I think it may be.

My next guess would be Uzbekistan... although if it touches Russia then that is out. The way I'm picturing it, I think it may only touch Kazakhstan to the North, Kyrgistan to the East, Tajikistan to the South, and... hmmm, either Ukraine or Russia to the West? I guess that's a lot more sketchy of a guess.

Another possibility is further west in Eastern Europe, like Hungary or Slovakia. Hmmm... I think Poland touches Slovakia and Italy may touch Hungary though. Hmmm... I'm suddenly realizing how much easier it is to see the shape of a country on a map and say what it's name is, versus actually being able to visualize it well enough to know all of its neighbors.

I'm going with Moldova as my top choice, and somewhere not too far away from there as the second one. I will keep thinking about it!
Nov. 7th, 2009 09:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Ooh ooh, quick quiz:
You're thinking the right way, but yes, it's hard to figure out which countries are "almost landlocked", and which actually are (and some lost coasts in the past hundred years or so, due to wars).
Nov. 7th, 2009 10:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Ooh ooh, quick quiz:
I think Poland touches Slovakia and Italy may touch Hungary though.
Oops, I meant the other way around. I'm also not quite sure whether Poland has a coast on the north or not.
Nov. 8th, 2009 11:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Ooh ooh, quick quiz:
Oh, and Poland does have a coast on the Baltic (during its brief independence between the world wars I believe it had no coastline, but Danzig/Gdansk was an independent city that belonged to neither Germany nor Poland, and was used as a port by Poland). Hungary's neighbor with a coastline is Croatia, which has beautiful Adriatic beaches where everyone in Europe goes nowadays.
Nov. 8th, 2009 11:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Ooh ooh, quick quiz:
Uzbekistan is right. Moldova is thinking the right way, since it only has two neighbors, but unfortunately both Ukraine and Romania touch the Black Sea, which makes them non-landlocked. (I think the Ukrainian port of Odessa or Sevastopol (I forget which, because each is the relevant port in a different board game) still houses part of the Russian Navy.) But the European one is sort of cheating because the correct answer is hardly even a country.

I suppose it's more of a country than Andorra though - Andorra is I believe jointly administered by Spain and France, while this country is completely independent from its two neighbors (though I believe the ruling family has decided to occasionally rent out the country for corporate functions).
Nov. 8th, 2009 11:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Ooh ooh, quick quiz:

Uzbekistan is right.

Oh, sweet! Well, I am satisfied then having gotten one of them on my second guess, even though I thought Moldova had a better chance of being right. I feel like this counts as redemption for my D in 6th grade geography :)

I am about to give up and go check a map, but before I do I want to briefly list my thoughts on your hint about the second doubly-landlocked country, to see whether this is right...

I'm surprised that you're comparing it to Andorra, because that means it's probably one of the tiny "micronations" of Europe. I had run through all of those in my head quickly, and eliminated them. So here are the reasons I eliminated them, and I'm about to check whether this is right...

- Andorra - borders France and Spain, both of which have coasts
- Monaco - borders France
- Luxemborg - borders Belgium, which has a Western coast
- Lichtenstein - borders Germany which has a Northern coast (maybe this is where I'm going wrong?)
- San Moreno - engulfed by Italy which has a coast
- Vatacan City - also engulfed by Italy

I guess Kosovo could plausibly also be what you're comparing to Andorra, since that is sort of administered by Serbia I think... or at least in dispute. But I'm pretty sure it borders either Croatia, Montenegro, or Albania, all of which have a southeastern coast. Ok... now I'm going to check.
Nov. 9th, 2009 12:17 am (UTC)
aftergame analysis
Ah, I see what my problem was with Moldova. I knew Ukraine and Romania did not have coasts on the Mediterranean. But I forgot about the Black Sea:

However, if Uzbekistan counts as doubly landlocked, then you have to ignore the Caspian sea that Kazakhstan has a coast on:

So I guess the definition of "landlocked" must be that you can get a ship from a port out into one of the big main Oceans without crossing land... and presumably there is a way to do that through the Black Sea but not the Caspian Sea.

So my main problem is I didn't realize the following route went all the way through:

Black Sea -> Bosporus strait -> Sea of Marmara -> Aegean Sea -> Mediterranean Sea -> Atlantic Ocean

Edited at 2009-11-09 12:19 am (UTC)
Nov. 9th, 2009 12:31 am (UTC)
Re: aftergame analysis

Black Sea -> Bosporus strait -> Sea of Marmara -> Aegean Sea -> Mediterranean Sea -> Atlantic Ocean

Actually, I guess it's even slightly longer:

Black Sea -> Bosporus Strait -> Sea of Marmara -> Aegean Sea -> Mediterranean Sea -> Alboran Sea -> Strait of Gibraltar -> Atlantic Ocean

7 hops!
Nov. 9th, 2009 12:53 am (UTC)
Re: aftergame analysis
Of course, the length of that path depends on the individuation of bodies of water. I'd never heard of the Alboran Sea before, and the Sea of Marmara is small enough that it doesn't really matter. Similarly, the Aegean may well count as part of the Mediterranean in a very natural sense. (It may be helpful to see which count as mediterranean seas in the oceanographic definition. I don't remember how I stumbled on that page at one point, but I thought it was fascinating to learn about the difference between dilution basins and contraction basins, and see that this actually does produce a principled division into separate bodies of water, even when the surface is all connected.)

Historically, I suspect that the idea of being landlocked depends on whether or not one can send ships from port into the open ocean. It's a purely contingent fact about world geography that there happens to be only one open ocean. If Antarctica were somewhat bigger and connected to both Argentina and South Africa, while Canada, Greenland, and Northern Europe were joined, then there would be two separate regions of "open ocean".

I don't know if the Caspian Sea is deep enough to support shipping and a navy anyway. Apparently the Great Lakes of North America are (I don't think the African Great Lakes are, but I don't know), but of course they're also connected to international shipping as well through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

I think historically the Black Sea ports were very important for Russia, because they were the only ports Russia had that didn't freeze up in the winter, at least until they had a few ports in the Far East (which of course aren't very useful for European shipping and naval strategy anyway). I don't know of any historical importance for Caspian Sea ports, except for the presence of oil and natural gas.
Nov. 9th, 2009 12:55 am (UTC)
Re: aftergame analysis
Oh, and I forgot that Russia still has Black Sea ports! I should have remembered, since Sochi will be the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics (even though it's mainly a beach resort town, rather than a ski destination, from what I understand).
Nov. 9th, 2009 12:25 am (UTC)
postgame part 2
And apparently, Lichtenstein does not border Germany. Strange... I took a couple years of German, and for some reason I thought we had talked about it bordering Germany in class, but I guess it must have just been Austria we were talking about.

Also funny is that I was right about the positions of Hungary and Slovakia in my first comment, and then said "oops I meant the opposite"... that comment was left after I started thinking about the time I visited Austria, and we took a road trip into Slovenia, Slovakia, and Italy all in one day. Based on that experience, I thought "I must have been wrong about thinking Slovakia was to the north of Hungary" but apparently I should have trusted my more recent memory of what the map looked like.
Nov. 8th, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
For countries with "The", you're forgetting "The United States"! (I've heard that most Americans can't name a country beginning with the letter "U", which Europeans find hilarious when it's pointed out that our own country does. I always think of "Uruguay" when I forget the point of this question.) Of course, like most of the others you list, it's a plural name. I believe "The Ukraine" used to have a "the", but it's been dropped officially now. (I don't know why the country has an official policy on what its name is in English - I believe it never had an article in most other languages where that isn't normal.) "The Sudan" I think also may once have had an article, but I believe it's dropped now too.

I think the reason the Gambia has the article is because it just is the valley of the Gambia river, so it's just like "the Amazon" or "the Nile", if they happened to be countries. (I also heard that the way the Gambia and Senegal became independent countries is that France colonized most of West Africa, including Senegal, but that the British colonized the Gambia by sailing up the river and claiming all the land that was within cannon-shot of the river. I don't know if this story is accurate.)

One of the things I really didn't like about Borat is the way the movie spends its time making fun of Kazakhstan and encouraging Americans to be even more ignorant about it. The rest of the time is spent making fun of the American south in the easiest way possible. For this reason I have no desire to see Bruno, because I suspect it mainly just reinforces stereotypes under the guise of making fun of intolerant people.
Nov. 8th, 2009 11:36 pm (UTC)

For countries with "The", you're forgetting "The United States"! (I've heard that most Americans can't name a country beginning with the letter "U", which Europeans find hilarious when it's pointed out that our own country does.

oh, man, lol!... I can't believe you're the first person to point that out to me :) And I thought it was bad that I forgot The Nertherlands.

However, there seems to be a contradiction here. If it does start with "The" then it doesn't start with a U, right? I can't remember what the name of that Australian comedy show is, but I remember watching a video of the hosts going around Texas and asking Americans questions about other countries to demonstrate their stupidity, and I do remember sone of them not being able to name countries starting with a U.
Nov. 8th, 2009 11:39 pm (UTC)
Oh right, and I remember one of the people who was supposed to name a country starting with U said "Yugoslavia?"
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )


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